Friday, January 23, 2009

A lesson in compassion

I run an art program at the shelter where I work. It is client supervised, which means there is no staff on duty, clients oversee day to day activities and the other clients. It is a beautiful space. Large windows over-look the river valley six stories below. Soft music plays. Artists intent upon their work hunch over tables. Paintings line the walls. Masks. Sculptures. The area is awash in creativity.

And the human condition.

Three of the artists have been with the program since its inception. The others, come and go. Drifting in and out of the space like tumbleweed along a path. Homelessness is not a constant condition in their lives. It is an affliction that arrives like a winter flu, passing through only to return another season.

Recently, a couple of the artists have experienced some success and acclaim for their works. For some of the others, this has given rise to self-doubt and a need to 'act out' their anger.

Which, has resulted in disgruntled clients and whispered innuendos erupting all over the building, as those who perceive themselves to be 'less than' attempt to even the playing field.

Which, has resulted in a flow of people in and out of my office airing their views on all that's wrong with everyone else.

Mostly, I work on focusing the complainants attention on what's happening in their lives. What are they doing, what do they want, how do they plan on making it happen for themselves. Mostly, I am able to stay out of the fray of 'he said, I said', and keep the focus on the purpose of the art program, and its value in someone's life.

Yesterday, I was not so successful. Last week I met with one of the clients (I'll call him Albert) whom just before Christmas, had packed up his art and left the studio because, 'nobody cares'. We met last week to talk about his concerns and what he needed to do to work through them. When I asked him, "What does Albert" need?", he replied, "To come back to the studio and work." I told him he was welcome to do that and reminded him that everyone in the studio is responsible for how it works. There was no value in pointing fingers at others and blaming them for all that was wrong. There was a great deal of value in being part of the energy and creativity of the studio -- and his energy and creativity, like everyone else's has great value.

He didn't make it back. Over the period while he was gone, his workspace had been taken over by another client. "But it's my table," he cried when told the other artist didn't want to give up that particular table (rightly so) and left before ever sitting down again.

Tuesday, he asked if we could meet. I told him sometime next week, but yesterday, after yet another client asking me what was wrong with the art studio and why wasn't I helping Albert, my frustration got the better of me.

I spoke with the Day Supervisor, he is responsible for everything that goes on in the building during the time he is on duty, and asked if he would meet with Albert and me. "Albert is gossiping with everyone and inciting discord. I want to ensure we meet and talk about what's up and not up and what he needs to do to change."

I'd had a busy week. The Premier of the province is coming to the shelter today and there's much to be done to get everything ready. Media were hounding me for details, media were calling about another issue.

I'm a busy lady. I don't have time for this messy stuff! (Look at me, I'm important!)

So, in my mind was this voice saying [in reference to the art studio and the requests I was getting for meetings to arbitrate discord], "I don't have time for these petty arguments. Why can't people just get along? yada yada yada."

By the time it came to a head yesterday (another artist threatened to quit. One artist said this, the other didn't like that) I was way off track and looking to create discord, not harmony.

When the supervisor and I met with Albert, I asked him, "Ok, tell me what happened between the time we met Friday and you said you wanted to come back to the studio and your decision to not come back."

I could have saved myself the breath and him the need to answer. Armed with my discord, I wasn't really looking to hear him, I was waiting to get the opportunity to tell him why I was so angry, and why he was to blame and what he needed to do to 'get real'.

And that's when I learned my lesson.

Albert is a big man. In his early 40s, his baby face belies his age. He's been a client at the shelter for 2 years, struggled with his addiction and has been clean and sober for 6 months. "They acted like it didn't matter to them if I came back or not," he cried.

Tears started to roll down his cheeks.

And there went my hissy fit. My anger had no place in the conversation. I needed to be open to the possibilities of healing. The conversation wasn't about right and wrong. It was about the human condition.

I listened to the compassion in the Supervisor's voice as he spoke to Albert. "And that really hurt your feelings didn't it?"

Albert nodded his head. "I just wanted them to care."

Albert and I share a common ground. I want the clients to care about the studio. To care there's a place where they can come and spend quiet time away from the daily ruckus of the shelter. I want them to care.

I can't make them do anything. All I can do is hold the space for them to find their path to caring for themselves. To wanting to give themselves the gift of time and space to explore their possibilities.

I can't make anyone care about anything. I can care enough to be open and caring in how I move through my day.

It was a lesson in compassion. It is a much more powerful emotion than anger.

Anger closes the door to possibility. Compassion opens up the conversation to healing, to growth, to harmony.

The question is: Are you avoiding finding a common ground by holding onto anger and shutting the door on possibility? Are you caring more about being right, than creating harmony in your life?

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